But bass fishermen say hydrilla could choke boats, economy
By Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, Orlando Sentinel
11:46 PM EST, November 11, 2010
KISSIMMEE — Osceola County’s vast Lake Tohopekaliga has become the setting for a clash between a state wildlife agency trying to save one of Florida’s rarest birds and fishermen worried about losing a top bass-tournament site that provides precious jobs in a struggling county. Effective immediately and for the next two years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will discontinue its decade-long aggressive battle against the invasive weed hydrilla. The agency, with federal permission, is cutting back the lake areas that it treats by more than 60 percent to try to save the snail kite, a native bird on the federal endangered-species list. Fishermen fear that an uncontrolled hydrilla forest in Lake Toho would block the sunlight and kill aquatic life while inhibiting the growth of some fish. Its vines and leaves choke a boat’s engine in minutes. State officials say they must protect the bird, whose population of 700 is down from 3,000 in the mid-1990s. ”Lake Toho’s vegetation is in much better shape than other habitats south of the Okeechobee, which are still recuperating from the 2006 storms and periods of severe drought,” said Paul Gray, a biologist with Audubon of Florida. “So in the last few years, we’ve seen more snail kites trying to nest there than anywhere else.” The wildlife commission is trying to strike a balance with its plan, said Marty Mann, a fisheries biologist with the agency. “That’s not always easy, but we are trying.” The fishermen don’t think such balance is possible if hydrilla is allowed to grow freely. ”This is an industry that pumps millions of dollars a year into Osceola and Central Florida,” said Mark Detweiler, who owns the Big Toho Marina in Kissimmee. “If significant portions of the lake can’t be accessed because of the hydrilla, we won’t be able to hold tournaments, and fisherman from all over the states and the world won’t waste their time coming here.” Bass experts consider Lake Toho one of the top 10 bass fisheries in the nation, Detweiler and others said. Each year, dozens of local, regional and national tournaments take place on the lake, pumping millions into a stressed local economy. ”This whole thing makes me very nervous,” said Kissimmee Mayor Jim Swan, an avid fisherman and former professional fishing guide. “If we can’t access the lake because these non-native species are allowed to thrive, the endangered species will soon be the Lake Toho fishermen.” How the hydrilla and the snail kites’ existences became intertwined is one of nature’s unforeseen marvels. Snail kites lived in Florida long before hydrilla arrived as a decorative aquarium plant in the 1950s. While the snail-kite populations dwindled because of lost habitat, hydrilla spread like wildfire, and the top of the plants began to house another exotic species: non-native varieties of apple snails. The snail kite, which used to eat Florida apple snails exclusively, learned to consume the exotic snails too. As a result, the Lake Toho hydrilla became nature’s buffet table for the bird. By letting hydrilla grow freely in areas where it had been previously controlled, the wildlife commission hopes to make it easier for the birds to feed themselves and their young. The agency recognizes that the approach — allowing the proliferation of exotic species to save a native one — is unconventional, but said that it is running out of options. ”It is very unorthodox, there’s no question about it,” Mann said. “But if we don’t turn it around, the snail kites can be gone in a few more years.” In a letter to the wildlife commission, State Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, questioned the state’s plan because of the risk to the lake’s ecosystem, as well as to jobs in Osceola County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the region at 12.7 percent. ”The hydrilla and exotic snails are not indigenous to Lake Toho,” said Horner, also president of the Kissimmee-Osceola Chamber of Commerce. “FWC is setting up an unsustainably false snail-kite sanctuary. …Our community can’t afford this job-killing experiment.” Mann said the agency will closely monitor the growth of the hydrilla and the fisheries to make sure they are not harmed. If necessary, the agency will adjust its plan, he said.